Chilean wine masqueraded as Merlot
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column publishes monthly.

WINE OF THE MONTH

Les Dauphins Cotes Du Rhone Village Puymeras Rouge 2014

The wine: Dry, medium-bodied red table wine.

The grapes: 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, 10 percent Carignan

The source: Southern Rhone Valley of France

The verdict: Those wine makers in the southern Rhone Valley can get pretty creative with their grape blends. Their neighbors in the north generally focus on one red grape – Syrah. But the folks at Les Dauphins put together a great marriage with the trinity of red grapes. Great flavors of blackberries and a hint of white pepper. Tannins are nicely balanced, and on the soft side. Color is gorgeous; deep ruby red. This is truly a lovely food wine, although I quaffed half the bottle all by its lonesome. I got reckless with the other half – the next day! – and whipped up some of my world-famous burgers. The Les Dauphines made a great match.

The price: About $19

If you like rich, full-bodied dry red wine, you probably know about Malbec.

Malbec is a red grape with a deep history in Bordeaux. It’s one of the five primary grapes Bordelaise wine makers tinker with to make some of the world’s finest,  and most expensive, red wines.

But it is in Argentina that this noble grape achieved royal status. High-altitude vineyards and wineries in that country’s Mendoza region have been pushing out world-class, great-value wines bearing the name Malbec for nearly two decades.

I told you that story to tell you this one. It’s about another grape with ties to Bordeaux … Carmenere. But this one has become one of another South American nation’s best red wines. The place is Chile. And Carmenere’s reputation there was established thanks to a case of mistaken identity.

Used only sparingly by the French, Carmenere vines were planted in Chile in the 19th century. Plant identification at the time was nothing like it is today and eventually the grapes, and the wines made from them, became known as “Chilean Merlot.”

As the 20th century progressed, and as Chile became a wine powerhouse, these “Merlots” attracted a large following. Wine critics as well as consumers found these wines quite pleasing and well-structured. They also provided good value for the buck.

When DNA testing became commonplace in the 1990s, someone in Chile decided to take a scientific look at these grapes. Perhaps it was to discover what made these “Merlots” so good.

What the testing in 1994 uncovered, however, was a big oops. These were not Merlot grapes after all. They were Carmenere. Well, all right then. We’ll just change the labels, keep calm and carry on, thought the Chileans.

And, after much publicity about this stunning discovery, that’s what they did. In doing so wine makers discovered that Carmenere actually ripens later than other grapes. By prolonging the harvest time, wine makers developed fuller, richer flavors in the wines.

Today, Carmeneres are Chile’s signature red wines. And Nov. 24, the day the oops was discovered, is celebrated there as Carmenere Day.

This is not to detract from the really good Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons and red blends from Chile. They are out there and many represent not only good value but some pretty darned good wines.

But Carmenere’s story makes it worth checking out.

I recently came across a lovely pair of Chilean Carmeneres. Good news is that they are both quite good and generally available in Georgia.

Montes Alpha Carmenere 2013 – One thing to remember about Southern Hemisphere wines is that, because the seasons are the reverse of ours, the vintage date is actually six months older … hence, this is a 2012.5 vintage. Now that might strike you as being a bit long in the tooth for a red wine, but fear not. This one, stored properly, has another 8-10 years of life.

This is one of Chile’s premier wine producers. The wine comes from Chile’s famed Colchagua Valley. The vineyards are sustainably dry farmed, giving the fruit richer expression, which extends into the wine. It contains about 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, in addition to the Carmenere.

The key to wine quality is balance … all those little goodies in the wine have to be in just the right proportion to create a wine that’s enjoyable to drink and to savor. “Balance” could be this wine’s middle name. Great dark fruit flavors, soft tannins, just the right touch of French oak (sniff a hint of vanilla?). Maybe it’s an autumn thing, but I detect a faint aroma of nutmeg, too.

It’s a great food wine, but does need to be slightly chilled before serving. I also recommend using an aerator when you pour it to accompany that red meat dish.
Price: About $20.

Santa Rita Pehuen Carmenere 2011 – From Chile’s Maipo Valley, this wine differs a tad from the previous one. The color is slightly deeper red, but the nose is similar. One big difference to me was how long a finish this one has. The flavor lingers in the mouth like a pleasant memory. This is a big, bold red with lots of hands-on TLC from vineyard to bottle. And the price reflects that.

This blend is 95 percent Carmenere, five percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and the wine is aged in new French and American oak, and I find the oak presence substantial.

Again, this is a well-balanced red. I got a flash of strong, black coffee along with the dark cherry flavor. There’s also a hint of black pepper.

The winery’s tasting notes suggested pairing this wine with barbecue. I’m not sure the Chileans have in mind real Southern Q, so I’d stick to red meat or hearty stews. The Santa Rita also has good aging potential, but, perhaps, not as long as the Montes Alpha. Keep in mind, too, it is two years older than the Montes Alpha. I would give it another four to six years.

The Pehuen might warrant decanting, or at least pouring into glasses 20 to 30 minutes before serving.

Price: About $60.

Regional events